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The Occupation of Literature and Books That Are Difficult to Get

[Barbara Harlow and Joseph Slaughter in Beirut. Image via the author.] [Barbara Harlow and Joseph Slaughter in Beirut. Image via the author.]

When I was one of Barbara Harlow’s beginning PhD students in Ethnic and Third World Literatures at the University of Texas at Austin, I had the temerity one day to ask her in her office how she justified sitting behind a desk, reading and writing, when she was so acutely aware of all the terrible things going on in this world, was so attuned to the “imperative to take sides,” as she would insist on any number of occasions. “We can’t afford to give up any space,” was her very quick reply, through her wry mischievous smile, as if she’d responded a thousand and one times to such impertinent questions from college kids puffed up with the smugness of their own inexperience. Barbara had no time for sanctimony.

My question was, of course, an expression of my own self-doubts about the value of academic work and a scholarly future defined primarily by reading and writing. And I must admit that I was disappointed at the time by her answer, although it clearly stuck with me as an unsolved riddle. The idea of occupying a professorship as a matter of taking up space didn’t appear to offer the redemption I hoped for, nor did it defend liberal arts education in the self-satisfying enlightenment terms of eventual human liberation. As I said, Barbara had no time for sanctimony (or sentimentality), least of all, perhaps, when it came to the work of literature.

The difference in thinking about scholarly work not as an occupation but as a form of occupation could hardly have made much sense to me at the time, as someone who occupied no space at all. And the implicit irony that occupations are also often illegitimate, or the apparent paradox that the form of occupation might be an act of resistance to The Occupation (one of Barbara’s major intellectual and activist commitments) could not be escaped, if it could not be untangled either.

Obviously, I’ve often thought back on that exchange with Barbara in her office, and often with more than a touch of hushed embarrassment. The question remains for me—and for my own students, by the evidence of the questions I have had to answer in the intervening years—a live one, as it must. But the fact is that teaching literature in the current era of overlapping imperialisms (as in the age of Third Worldism) remains a necessary act of resistance, a form of occupation, a refusal to cede territory to encroaching forces (whether that be STEM, functionalist neoliberal or neoconservative plans for the humanities, reactionary disciplinary formations, rightwing repressive policies, or what you will) that others fought so hard to attain. And, in any case, anyone who knew Barbara well also knows that she didn’t just sit behind a desk; among many other forms of engagement, mostly invisible to her students, she also sat behind a desk, reading and writing.

A few weeks after Barbara Harlow died, I went to my filing cabinets looking for traces of her, specifically the syllabuses for two courses that I took with her in the 1990s. The fact that today I have several massive filing cabinets dates my graduate degree to the era before email took over our lives (Barbara beat her graduate students to email, insisting that we get with the age) and PDFs took over our hard drives; at the time, we horded hardcopies of journal articles, books that were only available in a single remote library, ephemera collected in the field, and other hard-won combustible research materials. The fact that those massive filing cabinets are still full has much to do with her example and the sense (which she shared with her longtime Africanist colleague, Bernth Lindfors) that someone needs to be documenting things, keeping track of the paper trails.

In my search through the cabinets, I excavated, for example, Barbara Harlow’s name (in my own handwriting) on the return address part of the pre-paid FedEx label that delivered back to me in Austin her comments on my Master’s Thesis, with translations I had done of short stories by the Argentine writer Elvira Orphée. Hundreds of yellowed pages from declassified US military and CIA interrogation manuals are heavily marked up with notes towards a dissertation chapter that I hoped would meet with her approval—maybe even impress her. A folder that contains only a poor copy of the Maastricht Treaty that integrated the European Union in 1992 sits next to a folder containing xeroxes of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Jack Mitchell’s “GiB, A Modest Exposure”—a long poem denouncing the murder of IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988—and selections of poetry from the hunger strikers in the H-Blocks at Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. All of these were part of the Irish reading fare for Barbara’s course “Poetry and Partition: India/Ireland/Palestine,” one of the syllabuses I was seeking.


[Images via the author.]

The other syllabus I was after was from the first version of her course, “Writing Human Rights,” in fall 1993. I wanted to follow up on an old conversation. Almost a decade ago now, I had the opportunity of closing out each night of a conference in Beirut with Barbara, drinking wine until the wee hours of the morning in the hotel bar, which was kept open for us, long after everyone else at the conference had retired. I always looked forward to such nights, though they were too few, and was glad to trade sleep for another hour of her conversation. That night, I was complaining about some professional slight that seemed major to me at the time—someone running away with an idea I thought of as mine and making a meal of it. I don’t remember her specific response, but it was impatient and on the order of “C’est la vie.” As Barbara’s many students, friends, and colleagues can attest, she had no interest in petty academic intrigues, no room for obvious egotistical self-regard, and no patience for self-indulgent excuses or complaints. You were simply supposed to do the work you were supposed to do.

Hitting the wall of her reply, something suddenly struck me—sometimes Barbara’s typically blunt responses cut directly through clouds of thought; sometimes insight came only after repeatedly running headlong into an unyielding opinion; sometimes never. I suddenly realized I was on the wrong side of the conversation. “You must hold some resentment about my work on human rights and the Bildungsroman,” I asked awkwardly, trying to find my proper footing. “Resentment” was the wrong word and I knew it, but Barbara replied: “I got over it,” surprising me with the only candid expression of personal investment in her ideas that I think I ever heard from her. “I cite the paragraph in Barred that spawned the project,” I said. “Yes, Joey, but it was in the syllabus for the course…”

I put my hands on that syllabus again a few weeks ago for the first time in twenty years, wanting to see that original spur that she remembered so clearly. It is a deeply faded, coffee-stained, dog-eared set of purple mimeographed pages that sent me down the path of much of my early research. Here are the relevant two sentences from the course description: “Indeed, the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 translated the standard literary paradigm of individual versus society and the narrative practices of emplotment and closure by mapping an identification of the individual within a specifically international construction of rights and responsibilities. The Declaration, that is, can be read as recharting, for example, the trajectory and peripeties of the classic bildungsroman.” Those small sentences still strike me as genius.

An aside: some words are forever marked by the people who brought them to you; I cannot say or write the words “peripety,” “interrogate,” or “vertiginous” (among others) without feeling the weight of Barbara behind them.

The lines in the syllabus are, in fact, the very same sentences that I cite dutifully in my work, having (apparently) re-encountered them later in Barbara’s book, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992), forgetting the course description, which likely pulled the sentences from Barred, as I did. I often tell students that we are only really ready to take a course once we’ve finished it; like the first page of a novel, the first day of class is only fully legible after the last day. My own failure to remember those lines from Barbara’s syllabus—or, more properly, the inability to recognize their implications when the mimeographed pages were first in my hands—seems to me a clear illustration of that pedagogical principle and of the fact that we are largely incapable of accounting for the sources of our knowledge and the experience of its acquisition. Calculating now, I guess it took me nearly a decade to appreciate fully all that those two sentences implied, or eventually implied, and in one sense, my own 436-page book is a footnote to Barbara’s syllabus.

Recalling the conversation in Beirut and rediscovering the syllabus for “Writing Human Rights” have set me thinking about the differences between monographs and syllabuses, even of syllabuses that come out of monographs or that point the way towards them (as hers did mine). Citing a book or an article is one thing; figuring out how to acknowledge the much more pervasive intellectual debt incurred—mostly without conscious awareness—through the promptings of a course syllabus and class discussion is another matter altogether. A book may be part of a bibliography, but a syllabus creates a framework that may, in fact, guide the way other books, even those as yet unpublished and unwritten, are read long after the class has ended—at least I hope so.

In that regard, another forgotten sentence from one of Barbara’s syllabuses may have had, in its own subterranean way, an even greater impact on my future thinking than the succinct suggestion about the Bildungsroman and the Universal Declaration. Below the list of books for the class “Poetry and Partition,” Barbara wrote: “NB: Many of these books are difficult to get, and it will not be possible to reorder them in the course of the semester, SO BUY THEM AS SOON AS THEY COME IN to the bookstore.”

Of course, such a note says something about the pre-internet conditions under which Barbara taught and we studied in the 1980s and 90s, and it formalizes a history of frustration with negligent students who didn’t (or couldn’t) buy the books when they showed up in the bookstore; it probably also attests to the hunger of others, poaching from the ordered course texts for books that are difficult to get. But many of the books—from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Third World more broadly—that Barbara wrote about and offered to classes are still difficult to get, even if, in principle, they may be ordered at any time, anywhere.

In an age of nearly instantaneous home delivery, reading and writing about books that are difficult to get—perhaps in both the material and the metaphorical senses—remain acts of resistance. I continue to teach as many books that are difficult to get as I can convince a class of students to study, to occupy their bookshelves and their worlds with things they might not encounter elsewhere. In that sense, Barbara herself continues to occupy space, not only through her own books, articles, and syllabuses, but through her many students, whose own shelves (and the floors of their offices) are occupied with books that are difficult to get, and the shelves of their students in turn. That’s not the same thing as a late night conversation, but it’s not giving up space either.  

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